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Knock down the house

Sherry Rehman talks Womansplaining and the importance of engaging with the state in order to bring about change

By Maheen Irfan |
PUBLISHED August 15, 2021

Hundreds of women were brought together against the atrocities of the state during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in the 1980s. Laws such as the Hudood Ordinance or the Law of evidence, had reduced them in the state’s eyes and in their own homes. The anger and frustration that led to movements across the country where they were tear gassed, baton charged and arrested. But they remained undeterred in their quest. Their sacrifices are remembered and celebrated every year on February 12, which was thereafter marked as the National Women’s Day.

Today, a new generation of women are fighting a whole new set of challenges and hurdles faced by them. In the wake of on an ongoing debate in the country on femicide and rape and in the aftermath of the MeToo movement, the book ‘Womansplaining’ presents a series of essays from women who have played a role in the initial and ongoing movement for the women’s rights in Pakistan.

The Express Tribune speaks to Editor of the book, Sherry Rehman, for an overview of women’s rights movement as it stands in the country today.


E.T: What do you consider to be a significant impact of the original women’s rights movement in Pakistan?

SR: This question of yours is key to why this book was written. A lot of generational change has taken place. I think it’s important to really document these tales of extreme bravery and courage that led women to take on very strong state action. Women in Pakistan have always needed to push very hard for even the rights promised in the constitution.

In Zia ul Haq’s era, they had to actually push back against very regressive laws that were being rolled out as part of that particular regime’s agenda. Women had to stand in the frontline against reactionary forces, religious forces even and violent extremists. These forces have always tried to reshape women’s rights, and smaller and smaller boxes.

Those women achieved quite a lot. In fact, today most of the laws you see discussed or debated in parliament - the entire discourse actually arose out of this movement and its growth ties to political parties.


E.T: In your book, you notably refer to the old guard of the women’s rights movement. Who do you consider to be someone important to the face of the movement?

SR: There were a whole horde of sisters that would come out and support what became the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and other groups of resistance.

To me it was Benazir Bhutto - largely because it was her political party came on out on the street [to protest with us] even though I didn’t know her or anything. Then of course there was Asma Jehangir, Hina Jilani, Farida Shaheed, Bushra Aitzaz, Nighat Said Khan, Rubina Saigol, Nasreen Azhar, Tahira Abdullah, Zohra Yusuf, Sheema Kirmani, Beena Sarwar, Tasneem Azhar, Nageen Hayat and Zubaida Mustafa. Aneesa Haroon gathered such momentum that it actually became one of the longest and most sustained movements that was acknowledged in the world as a women’s movement.


E.T: You first authored a domestic violence bill in MNA in 2004. However, it was rejected in the Senate by JUI’s senator Maulana Muhammad Sherani. Since then Sindh has passed this bill in 2013. But why do you think it has taken this long without success to pass a federal law on domestic violence?

SR: It was actually also rejected in the National Assembly. I was actually an MNA at the time. Legislation takes many, many years. So yes, it was rejected but after devolution, Sindh passed what is considered an optimal bill on this. However, as a Senator, I resubmitted it a year ago in the Senate for the federation to pass it and it continues to meet literally what I call ‘blocks of resistance’, which can only be put down to a lack of political will because it takes the crossing of party divides to pass such laws. Even if some women are focused on trying get it passed and some leftist political parties do put their weight behind them, amendments always need critical mass in both houses. If the government takes it back and forth and sends it outside parliament to extra constitutional bodies, then you have what is known as a long political stalemate, which puts the law back into a graveyard of legislation.

E.T: There’s been some high-profile cases of sexual assault and murder of women that led to a dialogue on femicide on social media and on mainstream media too. Do you think this dialogue has gained enough traction to pass a bill such as this now?

SR: This is where the vibrant new movement comes into play. The challenge has piled up in Pakistan and the young feminists have also coined a new vocabulary of resistance which does lead to momentum, and I think social media voices have made a difference. They have led to political parties and governments reviewing their position or having to respond specifically. I think this is an important force multiplier because social media is [otherwise] weaponised in hate crimes and hate messaging. It can be a very predatory space for women and vulnerable communities. However, it can also be used and mobilised for raising awareness and bringing reform and forcing political elites to respond and I think that’s been very important.

While an overnight response or success is not guaranteed or you often see a stop gap increment of change, the point is this is a long haul and whatever momentum or force you can bring in terms of amplifying such voices whether its social media, legislators, whether it’s you doing this interview or television – every postage stamp worth of space that women and vulnerable communities can mobilise needs to be done. I think it’s very important to connect with each other and build intergenerational bridges and learn from each other.

E.T: After the Noor Mukaddam murder, you spoke up once again on your Twitter account and said a Domestic Violence bill is needed to protect women and children. As a legislator, what do you think should be the key elements of that bill?

SR: While we’re focusing on domestic violence because there have been many heinous crimes that we’ve witnessed, there have been many laws recently that have passed. As for domestic violence, because women are facing this the world over. There is a crisis of unspoken trauma given the rate of violence against them.

I was in the United Kingdom two years ago for a ‘Women of the World’ festival keynote and I heard Camilla Parker Bowles saying on stage that three out of four women in United Kingdom have faced such violence. These are statistics of shame that the entire world faces and South Asia in particular, is much worse.

Again, Covid-19 also exacerbated such incidents and closed in the spaces for women to experience such trauma and stress. I think a domestic violence bill is sorely needed, especially given the cases of femicide you are seeing and also finding that more and more many of the heinous cases – or even the less heinous cases – are perpetrated by people within the community, within the neighbourhood, within the family or the home. That is why a domestic violence bill is all the more necessary. This bill should criminalise violence against women, which means the state has to stand beside a victim who has the means and courage to actually get to a courtroom and fight for justice.

I believe the more women speak out and the more media speaks out, it gives hope to hundreds of thousands of young women and older – across the class divide – facing such terrible violence in the home.

E.T: Aside from policy, what else do you think is needed to teach young boys and men to shift their attitude and this mistreatment of women?

SR: A great deal of change is needed, there is no silver bullet but everything requires a push. One is structural change, which is hardest to bring about with how women are treated in this vast cultural of male hegemony and patriarchy. This is an architecture that is growing even stronger in society.

You then need social change, which will also involve communities and families, where children are brought up to define their identities and to create within the hierarchies of the home and the public spaces as well where a woman is always given left overs to eat or if resources shrink, the girl child is pulled out of school first– so these kinds of hierarchies make a huge difference also and they send an important signal.

Also seeing women role models brings change. It humanises young men and I keep on repeating, the less hate there is in society and in public discourse, the more tolerance will be seen in humanity.

But both veins, humanising and stabilisation project, is what is needed to work on. Then of course, you need legal support and political ambition to change all this.

Also, there is an assumption that only men and boys are perpetrators of suppression and oppression. Very often women in traditional systems also collude in oppression of this kind. We have to be clear about this. You see it in television plays that reflect some traditional societies or tribal societies. Or even all classes of homes within Pakistan and South Asia. All of this also has to be addressed and women have to be clear about their own identities. They need to bring up and support young women and when they bring up young boys, they need to educate them about equality.

E.T: Prime Minister Imran Khan recently did an interview with an American journalist where he blamed “temptation in society” for the rise in the number of rape cases in Pakistan. He later backtracked, however the main criticism and backlash he received was for the lack of understanding of why rape happens. Where do you think him and other leaders go wrong in their understanding on issues such as rape?

SR: I think the principle problem here is the lens of misogyny. In this way, a great deal of men have just internalised or normalised this view that it is the woman’s responsibility to not be provocative whereas even in our religion – and I’ve said this in the senate – the responsibility is on the eye of the beholder. You are under injunction by our religion to lower your gaze if you feel you’re encountering immodest spectacles. These [remarks] are all cultural inhibitors to inequality and even after he [Imran Khan] apologised, after a huge reaction, he still qualified his apology with the justification ‘no matter how provocative the clothes are.’ I don’t have to cite chapter and verse to tell you how many women in burqa are raped. How many young children are raped. Provocation is not the issue, it’s a way of thinking. You cannot place responsibility on victims and say that men aren’t robots.

The framing of the issue is what’s wrong. Rape is essentially about assertion of power and abuse of that power. It’s not about a man being so aroused by provocative clothes that he can’t hold himself back – that cannot be a justification of endemic rape in our society. I’m sure he didn’t mean that but that’s how it came out.


E.T: You raised an interesting notion in your book that women’s rights activism looks different than it once did. According to you, there’s a sharp contrast where previously such activism required ‘rights-based mobilisation’ and ‘years of painstaking work’ and often ‘physical confrontation with a reactionary state.’ In comparison, would you say rights movements due to the role of social media can sometimes be too passive and perhaps even performative?

SR: There may be qualitative changes because women are responding to different social situations. We did not have social media as a platform in the 1980s and 1990s but yes, those women were looking at the women’s movement as something with a beginning, a middle and not nearly an end but a realisation towards a goal. But many goals were of course defined in legal terms. And yes, that may have been restrictive but that was a very crucial beginning to the freedoms to walk and breathe. For instance, the Hudood Ordinance was reformed as a result of this activism.

I don’t want to say that today’s struggle is invalid. It’s vibrant and I support it whole-heartedly. Some very important issues are raised on Women’s Day and during Aurat Marches but what happens is that after everyone goes home, there’s very few spaces and activists who keep the whole momentum alive. Yes, it stays alive on social media and it forces responses from the state and political elite but it is not able to gather the momentum needed to bring about structural and legal change, which has to come from engagement with parliament, political parties and the state. So that is the difference between the two movements.

They both have their strengths but I believe with many intergenerational crosses together in very important convenings and this book is actually an offline convening if you like where younger women writers are speaking to new situations that have come up and they’re also dealing with far more.

I’m not saying the earlier women’s movement brought sustained changed but it has changed the discourse both in parliament and outside. I think the younger women’s movement is also bringing change. When they reach out to us, I say to them, “Well guys you should’ve been with us, we’re with you. And we will continue to be with you and give you the critical mass and the relief you need because it’s not about you and us, we are all one.”

So that’s what is needed: A kind of broad sisterhood needs to be further articulated. It needs movements and amplification of our voices.

E.T: Perhaps this book is the beginning of a new association between the two generation of women’s movements?

SR: I think it exists, it just needs to be given more space and it needs to be nurtured as something to work towards. As a goal to work towards because you know once women are together, its very hard to ignore so many women and we are not all token women in positions of power. There is a point towards the use of power and it should be towards those who are less powerful and more vulnerable. One of the many lessons of political life is that you don’t roll back the ladder behind you once you’ve reached a certain position.

E.T: Another point you mentioned was that these new generation of young women are not ‘willing to wait’ for change. How do you think you’ve observed that?

SR: Why should they want to wait? Surely, Pakistani women have been through a lot. We need to look to look at our very entrenched cultures of misogyny and the embedded patriarchy across levels of class divide, which just comes into play either insidiously or violently. So why would anyone want to when their anger is very valid and justified. In fact, we need to channel that anger in more strategic ways.

E.T: In your own chapter you talk about a critique that was often hurled in the directions of women’s rights activists accusing them of being too ‘elite’ and ‘privileged’. But there seems to an overriding sense in your words that the women’s rights movement in Pakistan have surpassed class divisions between poor and rich women in order to safeguard the rights of both. Would you agree?

SR: I think many chapters discuss this, not just mine. This was constantly hurled at the women of the 1980s and that’s done even now that this is an ‘urban’ and ‘elite’ movement. Even when we bring this into the parliament, it’s said that these issues are ‘imported into Pakistan from a foreign global agenda’. To which I respond very simply, ‘No thank you. We have our own brains, our own thought process. We are able to articulate our views and we have the right to speak for our rights’.

There is no power in the world that can force Pakistani women to become second-class citizens and for that we don’t need to apologise whether we are elite or urban, rural or a peasant girl anywhere- all of us have the right to speak out and what bedevils detractors are especially these Aurat Marches they have grown organically over the years. These are one of the good things. They are like rainbow coalitions and people from all labour, peasants are all coming together. They did in the first movement too.

Those [accusations] was a stick to beat the WAF with and that stick itself has broken, and we will make sure it stays broken.

E.T: Aside from legislation and policy, what do you think is needed from the criminal justice system (judicial, policing and investigation) to protect and implement women’s rights?

SR: There is a whole slew of changes that are needed and people who deal with the criminal justice system used to be for instance, Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, who has dealt with it in her essay as well as Maliha Zia Lari and Sara Malkani too. These women are actually in the courts, in the front lines of the justice system and they see how women actually experience the justice system. Obviously, the first step is to reimagine the courts as a gendered space because very often the courts are not in favour of how they interpret the law or use their judgements but despite the courts being hostile to women, I agree with Malkani that they continue to provide the only forum where the aspirations of women for equal rights and fundamentally are expressed, and sometimes actually addressed and successfully realised.

E.T: You speak of honour killings, acid crimes and stove burnings - do you think a domestic violence bill alone can curb such incidents in the first place?

SR: It should theoretically. Many laws can cure many things and such crimes have been addressed by women legislators in the last 18 years to change the game.

So laws must be made even if they address a small crime whereas I think there are very huge violent crimes at play against women in the broad society in South Asia and I don’t like multiplicity or duplication of laws. Sometimes you need higher penalties and - for the record, I am not one for barbaric public hangings - but you need to penalise laws that will create penalties and create frameworks for investigation and jurisprudence that will lead to not just awareness but better outcomes at the courts for women and also create ease of obtaining justice. Even approaching a court leaves a woman isolated in her community and very often, ostracised. 80 per cent of women are not able to approach the courts which is why the sexual harassment law which now needs amendment too deals with the crimes in cyber space because that didn’t exist in those days.

E.T: Another point you made was, “Many male stalwarts of centrist politics…are often slow to respond to women’s issues, dismissing them as ‘politics-like’.” Bar a few exceptions you’ve mentioned, has this always been the case? Where do you think the role of male politicians needs to evolve in order to impact and influence change?

SR: My dear, this has always been the case with a few exceptions. I’m not saying this because I am from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but I am in the PPP because of this. The men in the PPP are stalwarts of feminism and those who are not are encouraged to be that way.

I mean we had a number of human rights people leaders who for sure human rights is a very core to our foundational philosophy. So we are very party that is sensitive to rights will always prefer women. So if there’s two people to do a job, they will try to give it to the woman, which is a very big thing. I was made leader of opposition in an actual political pit where weren’t sure that the right-wing political parties will give us the crucial votes we needed. We got them but my male colleagues lobbied harder than I did. So this you don’t see in other parties and that is very crucial for moving women up the ladder beyond tokenism.

However, you have constantly reinvent your gravitas because there is a political culture where they’ll look at women and trivialise her stature by saying, “Oh you’re wearing a very good colour today” and to such comments I respond and say, “Well, you’re also wearing a very good colour today.”

Women’s dress and then objectifying women is the norm but due to women’s strong voices and leadership parties like the PPP and other left parties, this is considered very off colour now but it doesn’t go away. You’ll see constant sexist jokes and sexist language entering the public discourse. Now of course I’m the parliamentary leader of PPP so I won’t allow it and I have forum to speak from. So having outspoken women in key places changes the atmosphere.

E.T: How do you think a book like Womansplaining can benefit the men in Pakistan?

SR: Well, first it would be a good idea if they read it. A lot of my men friends are reading it and finding it a sad tale actually and I respond, “Well you have to be inside a woman’s skin to understand it but just the empathy is important.” I never exclude men from my political discourse - whether its feminism or not - because they are a part of society. They have to be made partners in change and they have to be held accountable. If they are not responding at the right moment with the right force of strength they can muster. So I think it is very important to push and encourage men to go that path whether it’s from reading this book or its from responding to women as equal partners who may be their colleagues, for instance.